Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Reluctant Defense of Ubisoft

I really don't want to write this blog post.

I don't like Ubisoft all that much. uPlay annoys me. The last Assassin's Creed game I played was III, and I didn't finish it. Didn't finish Far Cry 3, either, though that was solely because my wife and I spawned a tiny Overlord and I dawdled on side quests. I'm not likely to play anything they put out in the next few years unless they make a massive push on the 3DS.

And Ubisoft fucked up. No question there. But my day job is developing software and, God help me, I'm sympathetic by nature to a coder on a deadline getting yelled at for leaving out That One Feature. So brace yourselves, here we go...

In case you're not familiar, it came out during E3 that Ubisoft had left playable women out of the multiplayer modes for both of their upcoming big franchise games, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. They wanted to include women in the games - Scout's honor! - but didn't have the resources to pull it off in time. This excuse has understandably pissed a lot of people off, much moreso with Assassin's Creed because the last few games have included multiplayer modes that did have multiple female characters.

And I get it, and I'd jump on the bandwagon except I see a lot of people saying that the developers are being "lazy", or that they just don't care about female gamers. Which is not, I think, the reason to be pissed off.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 is apparently a reason to be pissed off.
 Let's be clear right off the bat: both multiplayer features at issue here are cooperative, meaning they're part of the single player experience. (Assassin's Creed's earlier, female-friendly multiplayer deathmatches got dropped entirely.) A friend, or three, can jump into your game, or you can jump into their game, and help out with single player missions that tie directly into the main storyline of the game. And all the avatars involved are, at this moment, male, and Ubisoft is being raked over the coals for not letting players play a female.

I'm seeing a lot of angry comments in the form of "This is bullshit, it's super easy to turn a male model into a female model, Ubisoft are fucking liars." And that would be true if all the new model had to do was run around killing people. But in a properly implemented coop game that's not the case anymore, because Bioshock Infinite is a thing that happened.

You can't top this!
Your buddy has to support you, has to be able to team-kill with you, has to hand off items and witty repartee as you mow down the enemy A.I.s. If Plot happens, your buddy is no longer allowed to vanish, they have to contribute to the Plot, have to have lines, make a meaningful impact on events, or at least not fuck up verisimilitude by disappearing into the Aether.

And if you want your buddy to be male or female, that really does double the workload. You have to hire an extra voice actor, you have to write and record new dialogue, you have to animate new body language, new facial expressions. And all of that shit has to be added to the test cases, along with what happens if maybe you have two different buddies at different times who want to play different genders. How many ways, at how many different points, can that completely break the million-dollar title that's due out in a few months? Because they add up.

Oh God, take off the turban! Take off the turban!
"Bioware does this all the time", you say. Yes, they do, with blank-slate characters that represent the player and her choices. They don't do it with characters that have distinct personalities that make their own impact on the plot. Ask Bioware if you can pick the genders of every member of your supporting cast as well, and see how long it takes them to descent into apoplexy.

I am ready to be corrected on this point, but I cannot think of a game that implements a plot-relevant gender-swappable coop character with a distinct personality. The closest I can come to what people are demanding is Gears of War 3, and that isn't close at all - you could only choose a female character when the plot made them available, and if everyone wanted to play a woman, tough shit. Or there's the latest Resident Evil games, where you choose between a well-developed male or female character, but your buddy had to be the other gender and nobody got to customize anything.

Not an option, sadly.
And yes, I'm crediting Ubisoft that they're implementing cooperative gameplay that's closely tied into the story. That's because these are next-generation games adding cooperative gameplay to game storylines that are traditionally strongly character-focused: no blank slates. If Ubisoft is just doing another implementation of the Amazing Disappearing Coop Buddy who fucks off whenever anything storyline relevant happens, then the resource excuse really does not hold up at all.

See, I'm not trying to exonerate Ubisoft as a company here, because if they delayed the game or management had made gender diversity a priority from day one they could have gotten this done. I just don't like seeing people blaming the dev team for this fuckup. They're coders and artists under the deadline gun for a multimillion dollar title running on a brand new engine on brand new hardware and working in an industry where employees are routinely getting laid off en masse. For Assassin's Creed, you just have to look at the Clone Quadruplet Assassins they did put in to see that something went badly wrong during development that limited them to one playable character model for the entire game. And on top of all that, every interview I've seen with the developers suggests that they loved the idea and they're genuinely disappointed they couldn't get the job done.

Which is another thing: Ubisoft hasn't been great at having female protagonists, but they've been pretty consistent in including strong female characters in their games. Compared to Call of Duty's complete lack of women, or characters like Quiet and whoever the hell this Zelda villain is, Assassin's Creed has been downright progressive for years. So I'm a bit disappointed that Ubisoft's catching more hell for trying to do the right thing and failing than companies that didn't bother to try and address the issue at all.

You know what you did, Team Ninja.
With all that said... I'm not going to say lay off Ubisoft. At a minimum they've mis-prioritized a feature gamers obviously wanted (and not just female gamers, I like playing as a woman sometimes myself), shitcanned it rather than delay the game just long enough to get it right, and committed a massive P.R. fuckup all around. Even if they're telling the absolute truth, it's moronic to say that you were five minutes away from putting in a feature and just didn't quite make it. Jim Sterling skewers them heavily here, to the point where I can't believe Ubisoft is lying about what happened - they'd have been far better off just saying nothing at all.

So please, scream and yell and tweet and write letters demanding playable women, because it's a thing that should happen and if it's not in the next Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games then Ubisoft deserves everything it has coming.

Just give the devs in the trenches a bit of a break, mmkay? Or at least the benefit of the doubt.

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